Saturday, August 11, 2012

Day 8: backpacking with our kids- our 200 mile summer: altitude sickness strikes

Day 8: Trail Lake to Mono lake canyon, near the Mono creek, tucked in the forest

Quite the site we stayed at last night at Trail lake with huge granite slabs that keep the camp clean and tidy, flat areas for nice tent sites, and my personal favorite feature: a flat rock next to a shallow shoreline on a surprisingly “not too frigid” lake for the evening bath.

Maybe because I am blogging about our travels this year and attempting to create an inspiring “how to get your kids in the backcountry” book are we experiencing things we have never dealt with.  It’s almost a comedy of errors and I am pretty sure it all is happening for you, the reader’s benefit.  So please enjoy!

This morning Cade woke up with a mild stomachache.  He had been unusually tired the night before as we climbed over that 12,000-foot pass; 2000 feet of elevation change over about 5 miles of hiking, starting at 2:00 on a hot afternoon.  Cade is our super athlete, always moving fast, never sick, always-smiling, super boy.  I watched him scarf down his granola from the comforts of my tent and happily went about my morning chores.

Within a short time, he started complaining of his stomach hurting even worse.  Hoping it would relieve shortly, we advised that he just relax and drink some water.  Mistake number one had been the small amount of water he had consumed as he climbed the pass, as the air was cool and deceiving. 

Unfortunately, the pain increased at an alarming rate.  He started clutching his stomach, as he laid on a granite rock immoveable, moaning and crying. 

My mind flashed back to the week earlier when friends had surprised us and had come down to our California hideout to camp with us.  They all had gotten sick, throwing up and feeling generally rotten, but we had chocked it up to altitude sickness.  Most folks that go from sea level to 10,000 feet would suffer exactly like they did.  The kink in our theory happened two days after their misery when Bekah clutched her stomach in pain.  Crazily enough, we could explain it away as we had fed her a huge banana split with sugary/corn syrup laden sorbet.  She simply overate.  To help her out, I gave her some Pepto Bismol and the pink promise of pain relief almost instantly gagged her and resulted in her first throwing up experience of her life.  When she threw up an hour later for a second time, we were starting to realize our friends’ altitude sickness might be contagious, meaning it wasn’t altitude sickness at all.  It was a virus.  We actually delayed our trip a day as we needed to make sure that there was not a virus running rampant, as that is no way to start a 100 mile through hike. 

So, as we watched and helped Cade, who was now convinced he was dying, we suddenly didn’t know if we should hike out or hike on.  Realizing that if it were altitude, hiking out would be very difficult and he’d get worse climbing up over the 12,000-foot pass again.  We were at 11,000 ft and decided the best plan was to help him get to lower elevation.  We divvied out items in his pack so that it was super light, and got his shoes on and helped him up.  He was shaky and miserable and quickly, upon standing, threw up.

Ok, Bekah has never thrown up in her life and Cade has never had altitude sickness and yet we had two bouts of vomit in 4 days.  Seemed like a virus had hit the clan and we were at a loss as to how to proceed.  Hundreds of dollars of food was waiting for us at two different drop spots down the trail, we had planned/dreamed/prepared for months, and we had family coming down to shuttle us from trailhead to resupply and back to the trailhead.  Did we really want to abort the trip? 

Cade’s symptoms were classic high altitude distress.  We’d learn later from many hikers that we talked to that altitude sickness could strike anyone, anytime, anywhere, even if you are acclimatized.  We started hiking down, down, down until we reached Golden Stream where Cade begged for a nap.  We stopped and let him nap for two hours at our new elevation of about 10,000 ft. as we nervously wondered if Cory or I would soon be sick and how long it would take Cade to rebound. 

He woke up and felt improved, so we hiked on – down, down, down we went.  By the time we reached a lunch spot, we were at 8,500 ft, plenty of elevation change to bring relief to someone dealing with altitude sickness.  Cade dipped his hiking hat in the water, put it on his head, and declared that he was feeling 97% better.

From “near death” to “near perfect” in half a day did not speak of a virus.  His rebound was remarkable but also a classic textbook case of altitude sickness – drink water, nap, and get to lower elevations and improvement should happen quickly, and it did.

The stress of the day knocked the appetite right out of Cory and I.  Helplessly watching our son feel so wretched, far away from the comforts of home and wondering if we were next, all made for a morose day.

We got in to camp and went forward with the plans as normal – rehydrating our meat stew that I had made 6 weeks earlier and unpacking the backpacks.  As Cade, now feeling 100%, unpacked, he discovered a damp sleeping bag.  We determined that his Platypus water bag had sprouted a leak (suddenly their lifetime warranty made no difference!).  We laid his bag out to dry and determined to repair his water bag the next day.

The final blow of the day came during dinner – Cory suddenly became worried that the dehydrated beef in our stew might be rancid so he immediately halted dinner and we had to throw our dinners out.  Honestly, my stomach was so nervous and stressed from this crazy day that I had little use for food so it wasn’t a big deal, but normally, our appetites are ferocious and we would have wanted to murder anyone who got between our mouth and our food.  Ready to just go to sleep and try again the next day, we all just gave in and went to bed. 

New mercies always (usually) come in the morning so we went to bed with a belief that the next day would be better.  We’d have no way of knowing, as we closed our eyes that night with high hopes of a better day, how incredibly opposite of a day we had in store for us.

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